Papatūānuku is Breathing: how Māori values underpin Auckland's sustainable destination management

Photo Credit: Brett Phibbs/NZHerald.

Closing the narrative gap between your identity and your perceived identity is a challenge for many places. Despite being New Zealand's biggest city, Auckland realised that most people were unaware of their Māori roots, or their thriving urban centre. Nick Hill, Chief Executive, Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development (ATEED), shared with us how they're working to change perceptions with a new brand playbook - and how they're putting sustainable destination management at the core of their strategy.


Thank you for joining us, Nick. Auckland recently launched a brand playbook – could you share the thinking behind the creation of the strategy?


It’s been acknowledged that Auckland needed a coherent story that Aucklanders and businesses could rally behind to promote our region. In 2018, we released Destination AKL 2025, a strategy for Auckland’s visitor economy that was guided by industry throughout its development. This was the catalyst for beginning the brand work.

Destination AKL 2025 was endorsed by a group of senior industry leaders, who supported the brand development by getting their senior marketers involved to form a type of steering group. We worked with them in developing the playbook, knowing they would ultimately need to use and champion the work.

We were very conscious of the strategy being ‘Auckland’s’ – not our organisation’s. Before we started, we looked at many city and nation brands, advertising agencies, and branding companies, and decided we needed experts to help us with the research project. We ended up selecting one with significant international experience – Destination Think. Their methodology made sense to us and yielded a robust and authentic result that we are very pleased with.

From the research, we created our Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland Playbook, which now underpins everything we do when telling Auckland’s story.


It’s amazing to see how tightly woven Māori culture is through your place brand strategy. How do these values impact on your place brand strategy?


When we conducted the research to uncover Auckland’s unique identity, we looked at three areas: what residents think of their city; what visitors and travellers think of Auckland; and what we tell the world about Auckland.

We learned that we have a couple of big gaps in our narrative – things that we take for granted about our region that the world doesn’t know about us.

One of those things was our urban identity. There is a lot of equity in brand New Zealand, but the world doesn’t know that Auckland, its biggest city, is a thriving urban hub with all the things that make a great city – arts and culture, a superb food scene, top class universities and businesses. Auckland is also a UNESCO City of Music.  

The world also doesn’t know about Auckland’s bi-cultural foundations and distinctive Māori identity.  Tāmaki Makaurau is an indigenous urban city and region, rich in Māori culture, values, language and knowledge. We have a youthful, talented, creative, contemporary Polynesian culture at the heart of our identity. We need to close that narrative gap and make sure the world knows about the Māori dimension of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland as it’s a huge part of who we are.

How are you working with your key stakeholders to encourage them to adopt this new brand identity?


We started as we meant to go on by creating a cross-business and Auckland Council marketing advisory group. This was a good foundation to get feedback and buy in. It’s still a work in progress, however. We were in the midst of running workshops with key stakeholders when COVID-19 struck, and that work was curtailed.

We’re now planning for future presentations and really tapping into our databases and the work that we are doing to support the local economy, ensuring businesses have the tools to tell the Auckland story with a united voice.

We’re creating content to support Auckland’s story, with the Playbook, copy pointers, photography, video and other assets to be made available on a digital home. We’re also producing an educational video that covers “what’s in it for me?” for businesses that are looking to use this content.

The Auckland identity is for all of Auckland: residents, business and tourism operators, and it’s our residents who will be fundamental to communicating our brand narrative.


We loved your campaign ‘Papatūānuku is Breathing’ – it balances Māori culture with the urban side of the city beautifully. How are you embedding destination stewardship into your approach?

I think it resonated as much as it did with people both here and internationally because it was authentic and unique to Aotearoa. It spoke to the Māori value of kaitiakitanga - which talks to inter-generational responsibility for stewardship of the land and natural resources.

ATEED produced and launched the video, which uses b-roll video footage shot only a month before lockdown to capture the beauty and stillness of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. The script reflected a Māori world view, our Place of Mana brand pillar, and the visuals showed our breath-taking scenery – a city in nature, our brand pillar Urban Oasis.

The entire production of the video was done from home. It’s been shared across Auckland, New Zealand and the world, viewed more than a million times, and covered by international media outlets including the BBC and Forbes.  

It helped that we had finished a b-roll video shoot only a month before lockdown, as the campaign aligned with the Destination AKL 2025 strategy mentioned previously, that leans into destination management. Sustainability and Māori values are fundamental principles for our stakeholders.


You were also awarded the Enviromark Gold for your commitment to sustainability internally as well. How have you been reducing your operational footprint, and is it important in your relationship with your stakeholders to show that you are investing in this?


We were thrilled to secure Toitῡ Envirocare’s enviromark Gold accreditation, and we’re currently awaiting certification for ‘diamond’ status after taking further improvement steps. Enviromark certification is a highly respected independent measure of our commitment to sustainability, which is a bedrock principle at ATEED and central to Maori values.

Leading by example is important. Since 2018, we’ve developed and implemented an organisation-wide Environmental Management System (EMS) and continued to commit to internal sustainability practises – ensuring that all activities lead to improved and beneficial environmental outcomes. 

One of ATEED’s corporate sustainability objectives is to measure our emissions, which will identify priority areas for emissions reduction. ATEED as part of the wider Auckland Council group will play a key role in meeting its emissions reduction target of 50% by 2030. That’s an ambitious goal but we’re determined to lead the way.

The Destination AKL 2025 strategy we helped create with industry also emphasises the importance of sustainable growth of the region’s visitor economy.  The strategy’s vision is for Auckland to be sustainable – economically, socially, and environmentally – as a place to live and work, and as a place to visit. 

Auckland also recently announced they would be partnering with New York City. How are conversations around sustainability and responsible tourism shaping the partnership?


Announcing our city-to-city tourism partnership with New York earlier this year – the first formal collaboration New York City has had with a destination in the South Pacific – was a milestone for Auckland. COVID-19 has obviously impacted the timing and nature of how we will work together, but we’re excited to be working with a major international city which is leading global conversations in its commitment to sustainability and how to approach tourism responsibly. Our partnership also demonstrates each city’s commitment to leading global change around economic, environmental and social sustainability, with a focus on sustainable and responsible tourism.

Auckland and New York City are committed to addressing the challenges of climate change and this commitment will ensure that the growth in visitor numbers enriches our region beyond the economic benefit, helping us protect and improve our environment, our unique identity and cultural heritage, and quality of life.

This partnership reflects the underlying principles of kotahitanga (partnership) and kaitiakitanga that are key principles of the Destination AKL 2025 strategy as we work collaboratively and with common purpose to ensure we are actively caring for our region, people and environment.


2021 was set to be a big year for Auckland, and you were set to host the Rugby World Cup, New Zealand Fashion Week, and a whole host of other festivals and sporting events. Obviously, it’s very early days yet, but do you have an idea how much COVID-19 will have impacted on these plans?

It is still shaping up to be one of the largest years of planned major events Auckland has ever hosted.  While it’s anticipated there will be some impacts due to COVID-19, we believe that next year’s major events programme – in whatever final form it may take – can help underpin our economic recovery as well as provide a vital lift to the people of Auckland and New Zealand.

In addition to the 36th America's Cup, Auckland is due to host Te Matatini, the biggest Māori cultural festival in our history, Rugby World Cup 2021, the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup and several other major events – from vibrant festivals to sporting spectaculars. We’ve also recently been confirmed as one of the cities where the FIFA Women’s World Cup will be based in 2023 as part of New Zealand and Australia hosting that tournament, so there’s plenty to look forward to beyond 2021.

One of the key considerations, of course, will be the sheer logistics of the situation. Will people still be keen to travel? Will they be happy to be packed in a stadium? Can you run a major sporting event without any spectators? Could you share a little about what your planning is currently around some of these challenges?

Mass gatherings are currently permitted in New Zealand, as witnessed recently with the return of rugby. Eden Park in Auckland was sold out for the first match of Super Rugby Aotearoa which started in mid-June, with a crowd of more than 40,000 people. This added some welcome vitality and vibrancy for our city, and put Auckland back on the world stage.

As always with major events there are a range of contingency plans in place for scenarios that they may be presented with. Public health remains the number one focus of the Government’s border decisions and there is a clear process in place for exceptions to be considered.

With domestic travel now possible, people are looking closer to home for their next travel or event experience. According to Kantar, a world leader in market research, 19 per cent of New Zealanders plan to use savings from lockdown to travel domestically, with Auckland the most popular intended destination.  

AirBnB has also reported a surge in domestic bookings since the start of Level 2, with Auckland among the top trending destinations in New Zealand by search.

Do you still believe that major international events will be a part of your longer-term strategy? And how are you planning on rebuilding momentum around this events calendar post-COVID?

ATEED firmly believes that major events will have a strong role in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s and New Zealand’s economic recovery.

We’re working closely with events partners to confirm dates for postponed major events to retain benefits and give confidence to the industry. Auckland has built an international reputation as a major events and sports city in the past decade, with many global events successfully held here from Rugby World Cup 2011 onwards.

We have the infrastructure and the capability, and we’re in no doubt the recovery from COVID-19 will allow this strength to flourish again.

We continue to plan for 2021 and leverage activity that represent significant opportunities to spotlight Auckland as an international destination and a place to invest. We will be looking to promote innovation and the use of technology in major and business events to operate effectively in a new environment.

Thanks for sharing that, Nick.

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